Filmmaker Theo Anthony talks "Rat Film," yoga balls, and the limits of nonfiction

"Rat Film" director Theo Anthony
"Rat Film" director Theo Anthony (J.M. Giordano/City Paper /)

Earlier this year, "Rat Film" director Theo Anthony appeared on the local podcast "10 Frames Per Second," co-hosted by City Paper Photo Editor J.M. Giordano. The conversation circled around Anthony's film, which screens at the Parkway for two weeks beginning Sept. 15, but it also touched on, in depth, his past work and a number of topics related to craft, truth in photography, and the changing definitions of photojournalism. I thought the discussion provided a more nerd-out kind of dialogue than you're used to seeing from City Paper and from outlets covering film. So I thought we would offer up part of this conversation so that our readers can get a better sense of what makes Anthony's brilliant, discursive movie tick. "10 Frames Per Second" is hosted by Elena Volkova and Giordano, produced by Audrey Gatewood and John Devecka, and recorded in the WLOY studios. The conversation below has been condensed and edited, and questions were rephrased. (Brandon Soderberg)

10 Frames Per Second: Is "Rat Film" a documentary? How would you classify it?


Theo Anthony: "Rat Film" is an essay film that uses the rat as a jumping-off point into the history of Baltimore. So looking at the history of pest control—rat poison was invented in Baltimore—and its intersection with racist housing policies in Baltimore, which was also invented in Baltimore. Using these different really strange connections between peoples and places and histories to sort of give life to a map of Baltimore.

10FPS: How is that not a documentary?


TA: Well, I mean because there's things that I staged, and I'll be really up front about what I staged. I think if it was in an Oscar-qualifying category we'd be disqualified from the beginning, and that's great, and I love that. I don't have any romanticism towards these old barriers of, "Is this narrative? Is this fiction?" Or "is this narrative or is this documentary?" These are shifting fields. Parts of it are a video game, parts of it are Google Maps screenshots, parts of it are on-the-ground Vice-style documentary, parts of it are Ken Burns films. I would argue that if you brought a camera into a situation there's always a fictional element to it. And that you have a very artificial construct through which you're channeling reality or whatever's out there, and it's always through a process of artifice and manipulation and, I think, being transparent and honest about the process of that artifice and manipulation is the most honest you can be.

10FPS: What's your perspective on plagiarism in photography and when photographers can or cannot claim an image or style?

TA: There's so much out there in the world that I think drawing very strict boundaries and lines between what has been done before and what hasn't [is unwise]. And I think that there's an anxiety that would be really beneficial to release ourselves from—like the anxiety of influence. I think that only works so long as you're just really upfront and transparent about who your influences are and what your sources are—and I think the impulse to sort of arrive somewhere or to create something and say "I did it first" is actually a real colonizing impulse, to get somewhere and plant a flag down and say, "this is us." I think there's also this resistance to actually just be transparent and think that the whole reason these photographers are in trouble is just that they won't even release who [their] influences are and you know, like James Frey, it was a very similar thing. He wrote that book "A Million Little Pieces," Oprah's book club and all that, where he wrote this memoir about his drug addiction and his rehabilitation and there were massively fabricated parts in that. And the issue wasn't that he fabricated it, I think, but that he just lied about the fact that it was fabricated. You know?

10FPS: So too often plagarism debates are ignoring a larger point?

TA: I think it's a core issue that there's so much content out there that I think it forces you to think about the structure of the content and the structure of distribution. And I think these questions of plagiarism actually force you to rethink image economies and how to actually help you rethink a healthier image economy where maybe we can benefit the people we're documenting or benefit the people that we are, you know, taking so much inspiration from. And whether that's cultural capital, whether that's financial, whether that's social support, I think that these opportunities are going to become more and more unavoidable because it's really not possible to walk on a beach anywhere and take a sunset shot and not have that shot be like the millions of sunset golden hour shots that have come before it. So once we sort of reach this like, singularity of representation, how do we structure ourselves when we're not just having these debates about, "Oh, which girl hugging a yoga ball is the better picture."

10FPS: Do you consider yourself a photojournalist?

TA: No, I don't do a whole lot of photojournalism work anymore. I have done a lot and have been published in photojournalism outlets, but when I'm approaching an event or anything like that, that I'm there to document, I have a very formal set of criteria that I'm following because otherwise I'm just like this snapping shutterbug, like pointing the camera in all directions, and I get really overwhelmed and I lose myself. So I actually have a very formal construction where, say, for the inauguration, I only took photos of rain jackets and that was my formal construct. I took photos of rain jackets and I took photos of riot policemen, like they all had these fogged up helmets and they looked like they were wearing rain jackets on their heads.

10FPS: Did your photos from the Baltimore Uprising of police officers in riot gear that were in the Sondheim finalist exhibit last year function similarly? With clear formal expectations for what you'd shoot?

TA: That was part of the body of work, yeah. I was out there shooting all these things, pointing my camera in every single direction, and I said, "You know what, I'm actually going to take a very formal approach to this." And I actually just only began taking portraits of cops, and for me, to tie back to your question originally, those formal constructs are the result of a lot of influences and stuff but I'm never out in the field saying, "Oh, this is a Cartier Bresson shot" or "Oh, this is a Terry Richardson shot" or anything like that.

10FPS: Is it possible for photojournalism not to have an agenda or a clear, overt message?

TA: Yeah, I think it's possible not to have an agenda. I think that's why I like to set formal constraints going into something, sort of like the initial conditions for chaos, you know, and that if I go in and I think "I'm only going to photograph rain jackets" like I don't have an agenda for what rain jackets I'm going to shoot. But it opens you up to really unexpected images. I'm not saying that I think that's an image that's going to be able to adequately illustrate a headline, but that's like a different approach and there's a lot of value in that. I come in with an abstract idea and my whole process is connecting it to the concrete and finding concrete manifestations of abstract thought. I try to make that very transparent in my work: That's my process and my hope is that these concrete manifestations can be access points for larger structural ways of thinking about images and politics and society.


10FPS: Would that apply to your uprising photos that were in the Sondheim exhibit? They seemed to offer those images of police rather than present a clear critique.


TA: I think the multiplicity of interpretation is a point of it. I think that the purpose wasn't meant to be like, "Oh, here's white cops and black demonstrators." That's just a really simplistic breakdown that I think is all too often propagated, and I think the series was really inspired by just this real eerie calm in these moments of intense violence where demonstrators are staring out at these police officers who are just staring back, and all these people just staring and gazing at each other from different sides with such loaded symbolism of what they're wearing and who they are. And what I think the photos are doing is they are a real zoomed-in telephoto look at these suspended faces in space, and you obviously recognize that they're cops, but you also really see that they're humans. And how I think that the series works is that you actually bring your own context to these images. They're very intentionally decontextualized with certain things to go off of, but for you as the viewer—there's space between you and the object you're looking to bring your own assumptions. And what was so interesting about this actually was that with the cops series in particular, when I posted those, we had both people who were in favor of the uprising, like the anti-police brutality—which was so crazy to have to say that you're anti-brutality—saying like, "Look at those pigs." But also it was cool because then you had people on the other side saying, "Look at our Baltimore's finest." You had two people both interpreting the work for their own ends. And you could say one is right or one is the other or you could say, "Oh wow, this is a connecting point." When you start to see people as human, that's when the conversation becomes a lot more valuable, rather than just these loaded icons of power that are just based on narratives that don't really question the way we think.


10FPS: Do you think there is a difference between fine art photography and photojournalism?

TA: I mean, I wish these boundaries didn't exist. I wish photojournalism—well I think there are instances of photojournalism as fine art—but I think those are very politicized boundaries and I think the work that I'm most interested in is work that explores boundaries. It's not work that denies that boundaries exist, because I think boundaries exist between fine art and photojournalism, between photojournalism and floating yoga balls in space, like, these boundaries exist, but I think work that navigates that and questions our assumptions about these boundaries is work that is most interesting to me.

10FPS: It seems as though most of your work is available online—is your website the best place to experience your photography?

TA: My photography's just online right now. I had a show at the BMA last summer—the Sondheim show. It was the first time I'd ever had a show and printed out my photos, it was cool, I loved that. I'm putting together a publication of my inauguration photos right now, we're actually printing it out on a newspaper so I'm gonna get to see my photos in a newspaper one way or another.

10FPS: Do you see a future for your work in gallery spaces?

TA: I don't know. I'm really fascinated by gallery spaces. I'm so new to it, and I'm just really figuring out what I can do and the vast majority of my work is in documentary film, and those have a very limited screening context in terms of festivals and then they go online and then they get put on Vimeo and then they get shared across that. But the idea of installing your work in a gallery makes you think about the experience of time in a whole new way and it's a really fascinating challenge to deconstruct your work and make it available for a gallery space.

10FPS: What were your goals as a photographer with your work in Uganda and Ethiopia, and how was it shooting there?

TA: I mean that was commissioned work. I was hired. I was doing a project with a design consultancy who takes design practices into the humanitarian sphere and sort of works with local actors and communities and organizations to better design local organizations. So what that meant for that was that I was working on a project that re-examined refugee education in settlements and was trying to find ways of instilling education as a resource as valuable as food, water, and shelter, and was sort of tackling the myth of settlements being temporary situations, and when you're at a refugee settlement you're normally there for five, 10, or 15 years. When you're going in as a kid at age 5 or 6 and you're leaving at 21, and there's no primary education or secondary education structure, you're actually missing out on a whole lifetime of education. So those projects were—I was in Uganda and Ethiopia mostly—refugees of the Sudanese Civil War happening right now. And I don't know. I can't really call that photojournalism because I was hired to do that for a private company.

10FPS: What is the difference? Why isn't that photojournalism in your eyes?

TA: When you're working for someone else, there's a fundamental limitation on the work, I think, in that I can make pretty pictures and I can take all these photos, but structurally you're really limited in that it has to fit within the agenda of whoever's hiring you. And I mean, in my case they were a really great organization, but that trip in particular, I think, was really challenging for me as an artist, like wanting to go out and do all these things and realizing that ethically there was a lot of problems there. Like you're on someone else's dollar and you can't go out and make the things that you want and call yourself a journalist. You're there for a very specific reason, and especially working in refugee settlements where you're working with some of the most vulnerable people on earth, to go and as this inert particle . . . you have a very attached history to who you are and what you're doing there. So those photos are on my site as a very transparent tracing of my path as an artist, but I think that was really when I started making "Rat Film" and when I started thinking much more structurally and beyond just getting that decisive moment. Like looking at the decisive moment in a history of time in a larger structure. So they were taken from a sort of photojournalist's eye, but I have trouble calling it photojournalism because I know the reality of why I was sent over there, I know how much I made, I know how long I was there, I know what I came back to. I mean, it's again talking about photos in terms of content and then photos in terms of image economies, and I think my interests now are in the interplay between the two.

10FPS: Can you clearly define photojournalism?

TA: Oh, God. No. You know, I can't. I think it's something that's defined in relation to other things and I think that might sound like a cop out, but I think it's something where you have a photo of, you know, a Sudanese refugee on a hill, and you say, "Is that photojournalism?" You can't answer. I think you have to place it context, I'm going to use the yoga ball example again. Like, you have to put it in context with other photos and images. Like is that girl hugging a ball photojournalism? No. But is that portrait on a hill more photojournalistic? Like journalism is always relation to reality through other things in reality, and those boundaries exist, but it's not any one thing and it's dynamic and it's shifting. Photojournalism is a field that has to constantly be pushed forward and be redefined and the inherent manipulations exposed and any sort of myth of objectivity totally torn down. And I think that's what I'm really interested in. So I think what photojournalism 50 years ago was and maybe certain attachments to it, like I think it's the same but different. I think we're looking at different economies, different natures of the image. It's a field that has to be constantly redefined, so I feel uncomfortable saying this is what it is right now.


10FPS: I want to discuss your music video/short film for Dope Body's 'Repo Man.' Without maybe identifying the people or anything, can you discuss how that came about?

TA: I made that video for Dope Body. Andrew [of Dope Body] came to me and said, "We gotta make something with all these people." And I just went there and it's was just a really cinematic place and all these strange creeks, and overflowing with garbage and really old-school suburban vibes with everyone hanging out with their shirts off rolling around on bikes. The main character's a guy named Billy and it's a very sort of long history of being in and out of jail, and he's actually back in jail now unfortunately. But I think the song is really about owing a debt to your history and having that history come to collect in a lot of ways. And Billy very much was in a lot of ways that figure and was a really, really sweet kid who just got messed in the wrong things for too long and is literally now paying that debt. It wasn't like a hard-hitting documentary, it was very much just like montage and it incorporates a lot of archival footage.

10FPS: OK, so gear questions. What do you shoot with?

TA: I'm always anti-gear questions. I always say just use whatever's closest to you. I've been really enjoying shooting with my iPhone. I shot a whole feature on a DSLR. I think the gear question is so often a list of inaccessible items that people sort of create this illusion or this aura around the work that actually prevents a lot of people from getting involved. I would say I shoot with Canon 5Ds and Sony mirrorless, I shoot on film, I shoot with my iPhone, I have a little Ricoh GR digital thing that I have just for snapping, but it's really like, use whatever is going to be easiest and looks alright and requires the least amount of time to set up. You don't want to be in the middle of something fumbling with your lens cap on a lens that you read about on the B&H forums.

10FPS: We like to end with this question—what are you reading right now?

TA: I just finished James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time," which was really good. I've been in a really heavy research stage, I'm in the process of shooting two new features, and so my process is very heavy research and internet wormholes. I'm in the wormhole stage reading a lot about ancient theories of vision. S, I'm reading about a bunch of Greek writings on what they thought light was and how they thought it was this emanating force that came out of your eyeballs, which is totally wrong but such an incredible idea. It's like they thought that all these light rays were coming out of your eyes and they literally tied you to what you were seeing and that light was this binding force of the world and it's an idea that [is] very much the key inspiration for this new project that I'm doing.

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